I live as a “stranger” in Croatia—often I can account for my mistakes and ignorance by explaining that I am a “stranac”(stranger).
Most of the time, I enjoy the cultural differences—learning to live in a new culture is both exhilarating and exhausting. And I am always cognizant of a certain dissonance that comes from being outside of your home culture. Even small things highlight this reality: learning which stores sell different things you need, trying to understand the instructions on a recent purchase, learning the “rules” of the culture. Although I have many friends who are happy to assist me, sometimes I miss the unconscious comfort that comes from automatically knowing the spoken and unspoken rules in one’s home culture.
And then there are times when the dissonance becomes a screeching racket instead of a subtle murmur. This morning, two electricians arrived at my apartment to turn off my electricity since the bills had not been paid. It was not a matter of neglect or avoidance on my part, but because the bills had been confusedly intertwined with two other apartments and we had been trying to sort out the complicated mess for a couple of months. In fact, just the night before I had been looking at a bill and trying to decode it. Frustrated, I threw it into my backpack and decided I needed additional help. Unfortunately, the electricians surprised me the very next morning, and no amount of pleading in my halting Croatian would change their mandate.
As I was biking to the electric company to try to sort through the mess, I was thinking about this feeling of being a stranger—the feeling of discomfort and vulnerability it creates, and how this vulnerability and weakness force me to be dependent on someone other than myself. Then my thoughts shifted to the meaning behind becoming “strangers and exiles” on this earth because of citizenship in another kingdom. How often do I experience this feeling of dissonance and vulnerability in my own culture? Of course, there are many things in my culture of which I disagree because they are not values belonging to the kingdom of God. Yet mentally disagreeing with something and experiencing all the emotional upheaval that comes with being a stranger are two different things.
And so I began to welcome my early-morning debacle as an experience that can shed experiential insight into this spiritual metaphor. I am vulnerable and childlike in my struggle to adapt and understand. I am sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes feel very much on the outside. Every day I learn something new that helps me in my adjustment, but that dissonance, sometimes muted, sometimes blaring, always reminds me that I am indeed a stranger. In the process of embracing this culture while being conscious of my “strangeness,” perhaps I am learning the correct posture as Jesus’ disciple.